The Almanac has an obligation to record the momentous events of history—not only those of which we approve. (Witness last week’s entry on the first publication of Time, in 1923.) Therefore, today we commemorate the birth of Osama bin Laden in Riyadh, on March 10, 1957. In September of 1998, a month after the Al Qaeda bombings of the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, the journalist Robert Fisk wrote an article for The Nation titled “Talks With Osama bin Laden.”
The last time I saw Osama bin Laden was in a tent on a mountaintop camp in Afghanistan last year. A few meters away was a twenty-five-foot-high air raid shelter cut into the rock, a relic of bin Laden’s days fighting the Soviet Army, but bombproof against even a cruise missile. Bin Laden had entered the tent in his white Saudi robes, shaken hands with me and sat cross-legged on the rug, when he noticed that I had the latest Beirut daily newspapers in my bag. He seized upon them and pored over their pages for almost half an hour, one of his Arab mujahadeen in Afghan clothes holding a sputtering gas lamp over the papers. Carefully, bin Laden read the news from Iran, from his own country, from the Israel-occupied West Bank. Was it true, he asked me, that Iran was making a diplomatic démarche to Saudi Arabia?
As I sat there watching the man who had declared a “holy war” against the United States a year earlier—the man who was supposedly the “mastermind of world terrorism”—I reflected that he didn’t seem to know much about the world he was supposedly terrorizing. A Saudi who regards the leadership of his country with contempt, he had told me at a previous meeting in 1996, “If liberating my land is called terrorism, this is a great honor for me.”
But not as great as the honor bestowed on him by President Clinton in the aftermath of the American missile attacks on Sudan and Afghanistan last month. “America’s Public Enemy Number One”—Clinton’s infantile description of bin Laden—must have appealed to a man whose simple view of the world is as politically naive as it is dangerous. Last year, upon that remote mountaintop amid the snow—so cold that there was ice in my hair when I awoke in the tent before dawn—bin Laden had seemed an isolated, almost lonely figure, largely ignored by a United States that was still obsessed with the “evil” Saddam Hussein.
Clinton has changed all that. By endowing bin Laden with his new title, he has given the Saudi dissident what he sought: recognition as the greatest enemy of Western “corruption,” the leader of all resistance against US policy in the Middle East.
To mark The Nation’s 150th anniversary, every morning this year The Almanac will highlight something that happened that day in history and how The Nation covered it. Get The Almanac every day (or every week) by signing up to the e-mail newsletter.